Sam’s Place

First published in the May-June 1996 issue of Film Comment, in time for the broadcast bow of Adam Simon’s The Typewriter, The Rifle and the Movie Camera; offered now as a new Sam Fuller DVD box set hits the streets.–Robert Horton

“Who’s Griff?”

The question has to be asked. If the subject is Samuel Fuller, and the man himself is sitting right there, you’ve got a golden opportunity to find out why a character named “Griff” pops up in so many movies from the writer-producer-director’s filmography. One of the many things to like about a new hour-long documentary called The Typewriter, The Rifle and The Movie Camera is that director Adam Simon and executive producer Tim Robbins do ask the question.

Samuel Fuller

In picking up on Griff, Simon and Robbins cast themselves not as documentarians or reporters but as fans. Their partners in this unabashed love letter are Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino, who offer appreciations, anecdotes, and gruff-voiced Fuller imitations.

The ungainly title of the documentary (co-produced by the BFI and the Independent Film Channel) captures the three phases of Fuller’s career: his beginnings as a copyboy and crime reporter for the great New York newspapers of the 1920s, from which world he bounced into novel and screenplay writing; his service in the First Infantry Division, The Big Red One, during World War II; and his life as a film director, which began with I Shot Jesse James in 1948. Fuller, who has lived in Paris since the early 1980s, is interviewed in a variety of settings by Tim Robbins, and displays all the finger-poking vigor and indefatigable logorrhea that have made him such a legendary storyteller, on and off the screen (some of his anecdotes are clearly streamlined by cutting, lest the program go on indefinitely).

The program is a treat, and crafted with love. We hear just enough from Fuller himself to give us the flavor of the different periods of his life, which he relates with the straightforward (if often excited) narration of a good reporter. His description of what war does to a soldier – a fist inside you that never unclenches – isn’t that of a wounded veteran, or a self-pitying neurotic. It’s more like a piece of reportage, a fact given a vivid description by a good journalist who has boiled something down to its colorful, true, unsentimental essence.

This is something Fuller brings to his movies. It’s true that, in Fuller’s films, you often feel you’re smack in the middle of the action – at times the camera itself is knocked around, by its own crazy momentum, or a fighting actor’s shoulder. But you are also detached, which is a quality that isn’t remarked on much when critics describe Fuller as a primitive or irrational director. Yes, he’ll cut between close-ups so intense you feel you’re standing in the middle of a two-person meltdown; the opening dust-up from The Naked Kiss can leave bruises (the camera whammys around so much that you can actually see Fuller himself in one shot, yanking off Constance Towers’ wig). But Fuller will also shoot the choreography of conflict from far away: the kitchen knockdown-dragout in Shock Corridor is covered in a calm longshot, and much of the intricate fighting in Fixed Bayonets is played out on the huge icy set that lets us see the broad, merciless pattern of men being fired upon. That’s a reporter’s view – watching the scene and getting it down right. Continue reading

Blind Side of the New Moon (Weekly Links)

New Moon: pale fire

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

The Twilight Saga: New Moon. “Bella sure can pick ’em.”

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. “As a filmmaker, Daniels comes on like a hard-hitting linebacker.”

Blind Side. “Manages to keep the schmaltz level down.”

Planet 51. The males of this planet wear no pants.”

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. “A family-made documentary can’t be considered the final word.”

And an interview, mostly on the Twilight phenomenon, with two low-billed cast members.

And two more oldies from Movietone News magazine, published in Parallax View: The Rose, and Richard Lester’s forgotten Cuba.